Thursday, November 3, 2022

The Sharpest Tools from James W. Ziskin

In Murder, She Wrote, Jessica Fletcher pecked out mysteries on an old Royal typewriter in 1984 and ended up tapping them out on her laptop by 1996. What changes in technology had the greatest impact on you in your writing career?

Without a doubt, the first major change was the advent of personal computers. I seriously doubt I ever could have become a writer without them. I make too many edits and am a lousy typist. Without a computer, I’d never have finished a book-length manuscript. 

Like my Criminal Minds colleagues, I worked on manual typewriters in the olden days. That’s when I learned to type, albeit with only three or four of my ten fingers. It was slow going, though, and hard to correct mistakes. Then I got an “electronic” typewriter that bridged—somewhat—the chasm between analog and digital writing. I think it was a Brother machine, and it was billed as electronic, not electric. There was a built-in correction tape and the thing whirred as it typed, lagging behind my keystrokes. Still, it was an improvement. 

But it was in 1984 that I bought my first computer, a Kaypro II, running on the CP/M operating system—not even DOS. The Kaypro was a huge blue-and-gray aluminum box with two floppy disk ports and no hard drive. It was considered portable because they’d slapped a handle on it. But it weighed twenty-nine pounds. TWENTY-NINE POUNDS. Today I write on an iPad, which weighs one pound. ONE POUND.

Over the years, I’ve bought many desktop computers, then laptops, before finally landing with the iPad. It’s truly portable and I can write anywhere at any time. I love working on it. We all recognize the benefits of spellcheck and grammar checks and word processing apps/programs. Then there’s the Internet, dictionaries, and all manner of sites for our research. You can find just about anything quickly thanks to these advancements.

So, if I were to rank the technologies that have had the greatest impact on my writing, the list would be:

1. Personal computer/iPad

2. Spellcheck/word processing

3. Internet

And…. 4. Read Aloud

The Read Aloud feature in Word has revolutionized the way I work. Other text-to-speech apps undoubtedly provide similar benefits, but I’ve been using Word. I’ve written about it before in this space. It’s the greatest tool for revision since the spellcheck. It finds the smallest errors that my eyes have missed. It beats reading your own manuscript out loud because it never anticipates or tries to predict what comes next, as humans do. While reading, we often insert words, mentally, that aren’t actually there because, from experience, we expect them to be present. But Read Aloud isn’t so clever. It won’t insert anything that isn’t there. And it notices everything. Never skips a word. It merely reads what’s on the page just as you’ve written it.

You can access the Read Aloud feature from the REVIEW menu in Word.

As mentioned above, I’ve caught missing words, repeated words, incorrect grammar, and even missing question marks. I’ve also discovered plot holes and logic problems this way, possibly because all my attention is on the words, not the effort of reading. Reviewing my work in Read Aloud is quick and efficient. It doesn’t tire me out or make my voice hoarse. It allows me to concentrate on the words and the flow of my writing, and I believe my manuscripts are now in better shape than ever before.

But the way, I used Read Aloud to edit this post. I must have made thirty changes as a result.

Take my advice and try it. I bet you’ll love the results.


Brenda Chapman said...

Thanks for the Read Aloud tip, Jim! I plan to give it a try.

Susan C Shea said...

Oh yay, oh yay! I recently installed - at great peril and extra cost - the newest Word and just this minute tried it. Samantha's my reader, I decided and it's amazing! Thanks, Jim, for repeating the advice often enough that I finally absorbed it.

James W. Ziskin said...

Glad to hear you’ve sorted out the upgrade and installation. And that you like Samantha! I’m not sure if she’s my reader, because I’m working on the iPad and Word doesn’t tell me the name. But she’s pretty good. Not perfect, but approaching realistic.